Montana Court Records
How Does the Montana Justice Court Work?
Montana justice courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Also known as the people’s court, state laws direct every county to establish at least one justice court at the county seat. The number of justice courts in a county depends on the size of its towns. Generally, state law requires that a town with more than 5000 residents create a justice court.
A justice court’s primary objective is to provide an avenue for litigants to resolve their disputes without an attorney’s aid. Most justice court cases involve individuals who violate local ordinances or seek the enforcement of the local regulations. As courtroom proceedings are informal, litigants may get access to the law despite limited knowledge of the rules of pleading. In addition to imposing penalties on criminal violations and settling civil disputes, a justice court may also administer oaths and perform weddings.
Justice courts in Montana handle small claims less than $3000 and civil disputes valued at less than $12000. Some of these include:
- Eviction actions
- Landlord & tenant disputes
- Consumer Complaints
- Negligence suits
- Contract disputes
The law also allows the court to handle certain misdemeanor cases that arise within city limits. Some of these include:
- Misdemeanor DUI
- Violation of protection order
- Underage Drinking
- Traffic infractions
- Fish and game violations
Depending on the ordinance that established the court, a justice court may be a court of record or not. A justice court of record is where court officials preserve court proceedings records in physical form or electronically. There are three justice courts of record in Montana as of 2018. There are courts in Cascade County, Lewis & Clark County, and Flathead County. These courts only process formal requests to access court records. The court will not disseminate seal records unless the requester presents a court order allowing access to that particular record.
The head of a justice court is designated “Justice of the Peace.” The procedure for selecting and replacing a Justice of the Peace depends on the ordinance establishing the court. Generally, the Justice of the Peace may assume office after a nonpartisan election or appointment by the city council. Per Section 7–4–2205, the term of office for a Justice of the Peace is four years. However, this may vary with local ordinance establishing the court.
Each Justice of the Peace must reside in the county where the court is located for at least one year before the election or appointment. Also, the prospective judge must be a citizen of the United States. Montana Statutes do not require justice court judges to be lawyers or have formal training. However, judgeship candidates must pass a character and fitness review, which the Judicial Standards Commission administers.
Besides, justices of the peace must uphold the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct’s cannons and attend two training conferences, which the Supreme Court supervises every year. Likewise, justices of the peace reelected to the office must pass a Certification Examination after each term. Otherwise, the Supreme Court will declare the office vacant and direct the city council to initiate the replacement procedure. In addition to the Justice of the Peace, counties typically elect or appoint constables to execute and serve notices. The constable may also perform other duties delegated by the Justice of the Peace.
As justice courts are often the first court in conflict resolution, these courts process many cases and violations every year. According to judiciary statistics, justice courts process an average of 458 cases every year. However, the caseload ranges from just 64 cases, in the smaller Petroleum County Justice Court, to over 12,000 cases in larger justice courts like Great Falls Justice Court.
Justice courts in Montana conduct jury trials. Even though hearings are informal, litigants and individuals attending courtroom proceedings must observe civil conduct and decorum. Otherwise, the judge may hold attendants in contempt and impose the appropriate sanctions. Per Section 3–10–301, judges have jurisdiction over civil actions involving monetary damages less than $12,000. However, the statute restricts the justice court from hearing actions for false imprisonment, slander, libel, seduction, criminal conversation, determination of paternity, and abduction. Furthermore, justice courts do not have jurisdiction in civil actions seeking monetary damages against the state.
On the other hand, per Section 3–10–303, justice courts have criminal jurisdiction and may conduct preliminary hearings of misdemeanors that occur within county limits. These hearings extend to traffic infractions and violations of fish and game statutes. Trials in justice courts follow the Montana Code of Criminal Procedure for criminal offenses and Justice Court Rules of Civil Procedure for resolving civil cases. If found guilty, justices of the peace may impose fines of up $1000, community service, jail time less than six months, or a combination of sanctions. Per Section 3–10–302, justice courts also have concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in all misdemeanors punishable by fines of up to $500, jail time less than six months, or both. Some of these include forcible entry, unlawful detainer, and rent deposit disputes.
However, if a party is dissatisfied with a justice court’s ruling, it is possible to appeal to the district court. Here, the appellant will submit transcripts of court proceedings, filings, and evidence. The district court will review the case and may uphold the justice court ruling or overturn it and initiate new proceedings.
Section 3–10–115 permits justices of the peace to hold justice court proceedings in any chosen facility, but most courts have a fixed location. Proceedings are mostly open to the public, and offenders pay fines and tickets to the court. Also, per Section 3–10–501, every Justice of the Peace must maintain a book or docket that details every proceeding’s title, all activities during a trial, verdict, and receipt of the notice of appeal. The Justice of the Peace may choose to maintain a paper docket, electronic docket, or both.
The Montana Judicial Branch website provides a Court Locator tool for finding justice courts in Montana.